After the general rebuke over cultic matters in the last chapter (Malachi 1), the Lord aimed the present chapter at the priests. The priests did not teach Torah. The people rejected each other, and the priests abandoned their wives. They broke brotherhood and marriage through faithlessness. As they rejected each other as creations of the one god, they rejected the Lord. In the end, they showed that they were guilty of what they accused their god of: they didn’t know good from evil, justice from injustice.
The priests reject the Lord when they do not teach
The Lord described in ch. 1 that the people desecrated their sacrifices, while here he told the priests that he would desecrate the sacrifices if the priests did not pay close attention to what he was teaching them (2:1-3). Since the heart in the language of the ancient world was the center of intellect–not emotion–“lay to heart” meant “keep in mind” or “pay attention.” They didn’t keep in mind that the blessings came from the Lord, and so showed disrespect to him. When they would not give glory to the Lord as they were expected to do, he would end the blessings he had granted them. The love that he showed at the beginning off ch. 1–that the people didn’t notice–would end. Moreover, the sacrifices would be the source of the curse, represented by the dung of the festal sacrifices (hag) that he would rub in their faces.
The longevity of the covenant between the Lord and Levi–the father of the priests–depended on how the priests taught (2:4-9). Since a covenant requires adherance from both sides, the Lord was helping them keep their side of the bargain. The Lord sent the commandment about honoring him so that the priests of Malachi’s present would allow the covenant to continue. Levi was a model of behavior because he taught the word of the Lord, the Torah, with faithfulness as a true messenger (“malach”–like the name of the book, “Malachi” my messenger). As he served the Lord through teaching, he kept others from stumbling. He fulfilled the true function of the priest: teaching so the people would not apostasize. (Note that Levi was called before the Egyptian captivity, even though the cult was established at Sinai, after the Exodus.)
In contrast, the present priests no longer taught Torah, and so jeopardized the people’s covenant with the Lord. If these priests failed to teach Torah, they put the people at risk. The low estimation of the people in the eyes of the nations came because the people did not follow Torah. (This state contrasts with the high estimation the Torah-following people enjoy in Zecharaiah 8:20-23.)
Divorce: The final sign of disloyalty
The prophet employed the oft-used image of family and marriage to depict the people’s faithlessness (2:10-12). They did not treat each other as brothers, children of one god, and so betrayed the covenant of their common ancestors. They were hedging their bets again, profaning what is holy and marrying (literally, “becoming the master/Baal of”) the daughter of a foreign god. They showed themselves to resemble the unfaithful whores of Hosea 1-2, whom the Lord would be just in leaving.
So the priests wept over the altar because the Lord rejected them–but they couldn’t conceive that it was because of their own actions (2:13-16). They broke faith with their wives. This passage imagines the priests married to literal wives and a metaphorical spouse, the Lord. Though the marital roles between priest and the Lord appear reversed, the expectations for faithfulness remain the same. Moreover, since the priests were all men, the image of the priest as husband simultaneously condemned the priests’ conduct towards their literal spouses and towards their god.
Divorce was a horrible offense. Literal divorce for a powerful man was easy for him but left his wife in a precarious position. Living as a divorcee meant depending on one’s father for a livelihood with potentially harsh economic consequences if the father was not in a good position to take care of another child. Remarriage was not common in the acient world, so divorcees could not count on this option. Thus divorcing one’s wife exposed her to difficulties as opposed to staying married and taking care of her.
In a metaphorical sense, the wife of their youth was the Lord. Divorcing this spouse meant breaking the covenant, a vow made between the people and the Lord. Leaving the Lord displayed the most flagrant lack of gratitude towards their god.
Their weeping exposed their ignorant self-righteousness; they couldn’t imagine what they might have done wrong (2:17). They asked how they “wearied” the Lord. They implied that they were more just than the Lord when they claimed that he preferred those who do evil, and that the world as they saw it was unjust because no just god could allow such things to happen: “Where is the god of justice?” Rather than observe the depths of their betrayal of justice, Torah, and the Lord, they blamed the Lord for their hardships.
The future depends on the priests
This chapter lacked any reference to sacrifice, but laid teaching out as the primary–perhaps sole–function of the priest. As Torah disappeared from the mouths of the priests, the covenant was in jeopardy–but not from the Lord’s side. The people became antagonistic with each other as the priests no longer taught them the correct way to live, and the priests themselves treated their wives poorly and abandoned the Lord. In the meantime, the people became even more self-righteous, assuming that the Lord had abandoned them. The only hope the people had for survival and for prestige in the eyes of the nations was for the priests to rededicate themselves to teach Torah.
In Zecharaiah much of the discussion around the eschaton revolved around the leadership. Malachi places the priests clearly at the center of leadership. In order for the people to look like the eschatological ideal, the priests would have to take the central position not in any cultic or judicial sense, but as teachers of Torah.